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America’s Greatest Forgotten Golfer

By Steve Eubanks   •   June 13, 2019

This article was first published by Global Golf Post on June 7, 2018.

Doug Fraser spent a lot of time on the putting green at Atlantic City Country Club, sometimes practicing but often just fooling around with friends. His father, Leo, former president of the PGA of America, owned the place so the club became like a second home to the Fraser kids. It wasn’t unusual for Doug or his brother, Jim, to see an old man having lunch or puttering around the club. The visitor was in his mid-70s by the mid-1960s, a time when the average man didn’t live past age 68. His clothes were clean but worn funny, something a kid of 12 didn’t understand. Nor could Doug comprehend the man’s jerky ticks, which came and went.

“I saw him out here quite a bit,” Doug said more than a half century after the fact. “He would play golf or just roll some putts and have lunch. I remember one time I was on the putting green and he came over to talk. After a couple of minutes he started telling me about the golf course. He went through every hole at Atlantic City Country Club from the time that he was here (decades earlier), telling me how he played them. Every shot, every hole. He remembered every inch of the place. But then his sister showed up to pick him up and he didn’t recognize her. Mental illness is a strange and terrifying thing. But John McDermott was a good man. Don’t let anybody tell you different.”

He was more than a good man, although that should be enough. John Joseph McDermott Jr., whose family called him J.J. and who at various times went by John, Johnny or Jack, remains the greatest forgotten golfer in American history, a man gifted with enough talent that his records still hold up more than 100 years after he set them and 47 years after his death. As we celebrate the history of American golf with this year’s U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, one of the oldest clubs in the New World, it’s worth knowing that J.J. McDermott remains the youngest winner of the championship and the first native-born American to hoist the U.S. Open trophy. He also is one of only six players to win the championship back to back, a feat that prompted Grantland Rice to eventually write of him: “To our off-side way of thinking John was the greatest golfer that America had ever produced, amateur or professional, when it came to a combination of nerve, coolness and all-around skill from the tee to the green.”

Yet he isn’t even an afterthought in today’s conversations about the greatest players. Most modern golfers, if they’re honest, don’t even recognize his name. The reason for his virtual evaporation from history is tragic and sad. And it is worthy of some modern-day reflection.

Artistry Takes Root

J.J. lived his adult life with the voices, carrying them like passengers in the back seat of a speeding mind. He told his sisters about them, and his doctors, but that would come much, much later. In the beginning he tried to figure it out on his own. Some of the voices could be heard by others. His mother’s melodic alto was one. It soared like a white dove during congregational hymns at St. Francis de Sales, a West Philadelphia Catholic church founded in 1890, just one year before John Jr.’s birth. He must have heard her singing there, even before he was born – A Dhia is a Athair is ag triall ort a thagaimid (“God and Father, we walk this earth with you”). St. Francis was nothing like the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, built a quarter-century earlier across the river and a place where a working-class boy from a bustling Irish neighborhood, slight in stature and lean in temperament, could feel the hand of God. While he would visit the Basilica often throughout his life, his faith was never bound to a building. J.J. never missed a Sunday Mass, no matter where he laid his head. Nor was he ever far from the rosary. Confession to an unseen God, even during the fog of a life spent battling the unreal, remained a constant. For the first third of his life, St. Francis de Sales was as convenient a spot as any for a man to talk to the Lord. But as he became a young adult, McDermott realized that he was one of only a few who heard God and others speak back in return.

While he found the voice of his mother, Margaret, as soothing as the sounds of nature, his father, John Sr., had a sterner delivery. A letter carrier who could not quite grasp how the Almighty had chosen a Mac Dairmuid, a “free man” whose forefathers had ruled the hills of Roscommon, to be a mailman, John McDermott Sr. was American, through and through. Gone were the hard Irish R’s from his accent. And his children, J.J., Alice and Gertrude, pledged allegiance every day to the land of opportunity. But it was hard for John Sr. to forget the family’s ancestors, the high kings of Ireland before Cromwell; before the famine that drove so many onto ships or into the ground. Now, the McDermott children, born free on American soil, squeaked by on meager wages.

J.J. was always small and thin; a loner who spent more time talking to stray dogs than to people. Most adults assumed that his size led to his disposition. But no one understood his social awkwardness, his fussy obsessions or the wild swings in his presentation. From an early age, he would meet someone once and assume that, from that moment forward, they were the best of friends. Other times, well into adulthood, he would introduce himself to people he had known his entire life, looking into their eyes as if they were total strangers. As a young man, he might go months wearing clean, pressed clothing with high collars, straight-knotted neckties and shoes shined with dubbin to a unworldly glow. He would sit ramrod straight, chin high so as not to disrupt the presentation of his suits while rubbing his hands down his jacket and trousers to smooth wrinkles only he could see. Then, a week or so later, out of nowhere, he might show up at a social function looking a mess, unkempt and out of sorts, his hair tangled and his clothing at unformed angles. On those occasions he didn’t look inebriated. It was odder than that. He looked like an alien who had attempted to don clothing for the first time with no real idea how the process worked.

As a child, McDermott tested the patience of his Old Testament-following father. So it was no surprise that, around age 6, J.J. started spending more time at his maternal grandfather’s farm. It wasn’t far away. John Sr. and Margaret lived at 1234 South 50th Street, and Margaret’s father was a couple of streets over and a few blocks down. No one spoke of J.J.’s visits as needed space between two headstrong males but the boy and his sisters would later recall those visits as gifts from God. The timing would certainly shape J.J.’s future. Next door to Grandpa’s orchard, at the corner of 52nd Street and Chester Avenue, a golf course, nine holes, had opened not more than a year before.

The Belmont Golf Association, made up of a group of industrialists, lawyers and real estate men, had spun off from the Belmont Cricket Club in 1896 and joined in a loose coalition with Philadelphia Country Club, Merion Cricket Club and the Philadelphia Cricket Club to form the Golf Association of Philadelphia. It was the first such association of its kind. And it seemed silly. At the time, the United States Golf Association was just two years old. A regional association appeared contradictory if not downright hostile to the USGA, especially since the founders of the national organization were trying to codify their mission beyond identifying the best amateur in the country. Early in 1894, Newport Country Club in Rhode Island and St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y., both held tournaments they called “national amateur championships.” Members at each club, believing that their sphere of influence extended from sea to shining sea, declared their winner the best amateur in America. The USGA was created to stop that nonsense. The new association would host a true national amateur championship in 1895 and every peacetime year thereafter. But the association’s function beyond that remained a mystery. So what on earth would a Golf Association of Philadelphia do? The 1895 Amateur Championship of the United States had been a rousing success, so much so that the organization held a United States Open the day after, throwing a bone to the poor golf pros. Would the Philadelphia cabal try to upset or upstage those championships? If so, how? And why?

Six-year-old J.J. knew far more about chasing butterflies than he did about club politics in 1897. In fact, all he knew was that land that once had been apple trees now was mown grass with sticks in the ground, sand boxes and flags. The Belmont Golf Association course measured 3,070 yards and was a par-36½. The golfers had left standing an old barn, one that had once been the dwelling place for a Lenape chief named Aronimink, an odd name but one the BGA members eventually adopted and took with them to another site outside of town. Again, young McDermott couldn’t care less why they did what they did. He was just thrilled that the barn was still up. And he was fascinated by the game those people played. Hitting a ball with the wooden clubs struck him like a moving piece of art. The beauty and choreography of the motion; the calm and quiet of it; the organization. The cause and effect: Something inside him longed for this kind of activity. In almost no time, J.J. had set up a makeshift course in his grandfather’s orchard using tin cans, tree branches and small apples. He studied what he saw and mimicked the motions of the players passing through.

At age 9 and still the size of most 7-year-olds, a precocious McDermott marched over to the club, which was, by that point, being called Aronimink, and announced that he would be the best caddie they had ever allowed on the premises. Given the Lord of the Flies nature of most caddie pens, he was lucky that he didn’t get pummeled and thrown onto the road. But Walter Reynolds, the club’s professional, took a liking to the kid. He was polite and earnest but also different enough to catch a busy adult’s eye. J.J. could be painfully shy one day, so much so that when other caddies would wander over to his homemade course in the orchard (which expanded in the following years), McDermott simply would turn and walk away without saying a word. But the next day, he would be so supremely confident that he would insist on looping for the most demanding player at the club. And he would do a great job. Reynolds gave McDermott a few golf lessons and taught him how to build clubs from strips of hickory, blocks of persimmon, strips of leather, a few nails and some twine. When Reynolds left Aronimink, his successor, Bill Byrne, mentored McDermott, giving additional tips and helping him develop as a player.

Bumptious Youth

In 1906, when J.J. was 15, John Sr. told his son that it was time to get out and learn a trade. School was well and good (J.J. was a solid student) but life was hard. McDermott followed his father’s instructions in part. He quit school. But instead of heading to the dockyard or the mill, he moved across the river to Camden, N.J., where he took a job as the assistant pro at Camden Country Club. While there, McDermott met another Philadelphia pro named Tom McNamara who helped him hone his game.

Physically, McDermott would have been compared to players of the next generation like Jack Burke Jr. and Ben Hogan. He was listed in programs and newspapers as standing 5 feet 8 but those who saw him later in life surmised that 5-6 or 5-7 would be a generous guess. He never weighed more than 130 pounds. But his hands were enormous and powerful. Because of that, he had one of the flattest swings of the era, setting his wrists early and rotating the way pros did in the 1940s and ’50s. Because he made his own clubs, he built up his grips with extra strips of leather. They were the largest grips anyone had seen at the time and almost everyone who played with McDermott commented on them. The way he put those enormous hands on the club also was quite different. At a time when Harry Vardon was revolutionizing the game with his overlapping Vardon grip (a commonly used grip today), McDermott went with a double-overlap, putting the pinky and ring finger of his right hand over the index and middle finger of left. To the knowledge of most golf historians that grip has only been used successfully by two players: J.J. McDermott and Jim Furyk, both men who built their own swings based on their specific strengths and weaknesses.

McDermott’s strengths were his hand speed, his timing and his ability to cover the golf ball when no one knew what that meant. Unlike many players of the day who attempted to release the club and rotate the face through impact, McDermott had a strong grip, an open stance with the ball played closer to his right foot than most pros of his day. From there, he held the face square as long as possible and chased the shot through impact with his shoulders. It is a move many pros work on today. Because the clubface stayed squarer longer, he was incredibly accurate. Stories abound of McDermott using newspapers as practice targets so that he could simply fold the corners of the newspaper and collect most if not all of his golf balls.

And practice he did. McDermott would arrive every morning (except Sunday, which was reserved for Mass) before sunrise and work on his game before going into the shop. Then he would play later with members or other professionals, almost all of whom marveled at his speed and consistency through impact.

His putting style was also ahead of its time, although not by much. Most professionals who learned the game in the winds of England and Scotland took wide stances and bent over a good bit when they putted. McDermott putted with his feet and knees together, bending over no more than he would if he was hitting a mashie. Two decades later, Bobby Jones would be recognized as the greatest athlete in the world using the putting stance McDermott created in the early 1900s.

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McDermott had a strong grip, an open stance with the ball played closer to his right foot than most pros of his day.

As for his weaknesses, they were becoming clear to anyone who took the time to notice.

While early signs of a disorder may be evident at a young age, full-onset schizophrenia normally arises after puberty, becoming a serious issue in a person’s late teens and early 20s. It is rare, even with today’s medical advancements, that an accurate diagnosis occurs before age 12. In modern society, a prepubescent boy going through mood swings is no more alarming than the sun rising in the east. Likewise, a 12- or 13-year-old having days and times in which he is painfully reserved and shy followed by days and times when he is confident to the point of zealotry is more likely to elicit eye-rolls than set off alarms. If those warning signs are missed today, imagine what it was like more than a century ago.

After a year at Camden Country Club, McDermott took a head professional job at a place called Merchantville Country Club in Cherry Hill, N.J. It was a nine-hole course and a dead-end job, although it did allow him time to practice. One part of J.J. loved the solitude of a quiet club. He could take time off to play in tournaments or schedule matches with other pros. He would practice at any time. His interactions with people were light and infrequent. The introvert loved Merchantville.

But the other J.J., the one who marched into Aronimink and announced that he was the best caddie on the property, screamed to get out, to find something better, more exciting, a spot where he could be noticed and get the kinds of games that would hone his skills even more. Early in 1909, when the head professional job at Philadelphia Cricket Club opened up (one of the best jobs in the country), J.J. knew just the person to help him land it. During his days in West Philadelphia, McDermott had caddied several times for a world-class amateur player named A.W. Tillinghast, who would become a legendary course architect. The other McDermott, the brash kid who believed he could do anything, thought he and Tillinghast were friends. Surely a friend would help another younger friend get a job, especially if that younger friend was exceptionally talented and capable.

Later Tillinghast would describe the incident: “One day, a little fellow came to me and recalled the fact that he had caddied for me on a number of occasions; told me that he had become a pro at a little nine-hole course in Merchantville, in South Jersey, but yearning for better things, asked me to use my influence in getting him the vacancy at well-known Philadelphia Cricket Club. This suggestion, coming from an utterly unknown, rather staggered me by its incongruity, but when I told him that already I had succeeded in placing ex-champion, Willie Anderson, at the Cricket Club, he remarked that it was a great pity as he could beat Anderson for red apples or green money, and further he could beat any pro in the Philadelphia district. This supreme egoism left me quite cold and, frankly, I regarded McDermott merely as a bumptious youth, who needed a good trimming to show him his place.”

In his excellent book Surviving Schizophrenia, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a leading expert on the disease, writes: “Those who are afflicted act bizarrely, say strange things, withdraw from us, and may even try to hurt us. They are no longer the same person – they are mad! We don’t understand why they say what they say and do what they do. We don’t understand the disease process. Rather than a steadily growing tumor, which we can understand, it is as if the person has lost control of his/her brain. How can we sympathize with a person who is possessed by unknown and unforeseen forces? How can we sympathize with a madman or a madwoman?”

At the time he approached Tillinghast, McDermott was 17 years old and the voices no longer whispered. Even if he had sought treatment immediately, few if any medical professionals would have diagnosed him properly. Descriptions of schizophrenia go as far back as the pharoahs of Egypt. Demon possession was the diagnosis for most of man’s history. Even when professionals realized that schizophrenia was a disease of the mind, treatment ranged from opening the skull to allow the brain to breathe to dunking the patient’s head repeatedly in cold water. It wasn’t until 1887 that German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin identified the specific symptoms of modern schizophrenia as a unique disease. He called it “dementia praecox,” to distinguish it from forms of dementia that came late in life, such as Alzheimer’s. It would be another 24 years before Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler named the disease “schizophrenia,” from the Greek “schizo,” meaning “split” and “phrene” which translates to “mind.” And the word didn’t enter common medical vernacular for several years after that.

One of the patients Torrey researched said of the typical schizophrenic episode: “Social situations were almost impossible to manage. I always came across as aloof, anxious, nervous, or just plain weird, picking up on inane snippets of conversation and asking people to repeat themselves and tell me what they were referring to.”

Later in 1909, McDermott entered the U.S. Open at Englewood Golf Club in New Jersey. England’s George Sargent shot 290 and broke the Open scoring record by five shots. More importantly, since its inauguration in 1895, the U.S. Open had been won by: an Englishman (Horace Rawlins), a Scot (James Foulis), another Englishman (Joe Lloyd), two Scots in a row (Fred Herd and Willie Smith), a Jerseyman (Harry Vardon) and five more Scots in eight years before Sargent sent the trophy back to England. It appeared to most Americans that the U.S. Open was the British Open of the West. Someone from the States needed to break through or the very future of the American game could be in jeopardy. In 1909 McDermott was not that man. He finished 49th.

But he did make a name for himself. While he was near New York City, McDermott ran an ad in a local paper challenging any pro to a home-and-home match for $500 (the equivalent of a $13,000 bet today). His only taker was Jimmy Campbell from Whitemarsh Country Club. McDermott beat Campbell so thoroughly in the first round at Whitemarsh that Campbell paid the bet instead of traveling south to McDermott’s home course.

According to Dr. Torrey’s research, people with schizophrenia are, in certain settings, capable of performing at exceptionally high levels. Think of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician Dr. John Nash, the subject of the book (and film) A Beautiful Mind. Nash’s full-blown delusions went undetected for decades while he was doing groundbreaking work in math and economics. But once the paranoia overtakes the sufferer, they show greater cognitive bias and far worse social functioning, not just in relation to the general public but relative to other schizophrenics who are not paranoid, Torrey writes.

Open and Shut

The 1910 U.S. Open was at Philadelphia Cricket Club, a home game for McDermott. By then, local reporters knew him and local pros knew not to wager with him. He was a hustler and obnoxious about it. But when McDermott approached Scottish brothers Alex and Macdonald Smith and challenged them to a money game during one of the practice rounds, Alex gave a smirk and said, “Run along there little fella. We’ve had enough of you.”

The schizophrenic also conflates events and compresses time, according to Dr. Torrey’s research. An event that occurred years ago could come up again in an innocent conversation as though it happened yesterday. “It should always be remembered that the behavior of persons with schizophrenia is internally logical and rational,” Torrey writes. “They do things for reasons that, given their own disordered senses and thinking, make sense to them.”

McDermott whipped himself into a near frenzy before that 1910 Open. He shot a 74 in the first round with a shaky putter to trail Tom Anderson by two. Alex Smith shot 73 while Willie Anderson and Macdonald Smith were tied with McDermott. Because the U.S. Open was played across two days instead of four, play continued without re-pairing. In the second round, Alex Smith shot another 73 while McDermott shot another 74. The lead was two with two rounds remaining. The final day – Saturday, June 18, 1910 – McDermott shot 75 in the morning round to take a one-stroke lead into the afternoon after Smith faltered with a 79. But Smith came charging back with a 73 in the afternoon to tie both McDermott and his own brother, Macdonald.

Monday, two days later, was the first three-way playoff in U.S. Open history. Alex Smith fired a 2-under 71 to beat McDermott by four and his brother by six. McDermott fumed on the final green, looking like he might have a breakdown. The insult from days before roiled inside him, expanding like a toxic contagion. Smith, having no sense of the situation, walked over and said, “Hard luck, kid,” to which McDermott responded, “I’ll get you next year you big tramp.”

Alex Smith, George Low, Willie Anderson and J.J. McDermott

He did just that but not before making an upward move. A victory in the 1910 Philadelphia Open got McDermott out of Merchantville and into Atlantic City Country Club, a beach resort with an affluent membership and plenty of wealthy people looking for a game. McDermott’s match-play offer went up to $1,000 at a time when the average household income in America was $574 a year. There were a few takers but after three consecutive McDermott victories, opponents and those willing to stake them dried up.

McDermott became a sought-after clubmaker on the New Jersey Shore, with high-brow golfers traveling from Philadelphia and New York to have the man recognized as the best American pro build them a custom mashie or specialty brassies with African ivory faces. Little is known about his teaching abilities, although the members at a club like Atlantic City would have insisted on a competent instructor. But his playing ability was unmatched. Between the 1910 and 1911 U.S. Opens there isn’t a single reference to anyone beating McDermott. At a time when challenge matches were as prevalent a gambling outlet as horse races, McDermott won every outing, often spotting shots to the best players from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania just to get someone to play him.

By the summer of 1911, he was the undisputed favorite to win every event he played. In that year’s U.S. Open at Chicago Golf Club, McDermott strode to the tee with a golf jacket and took a mighty swing. His mouth always opened in a grimace at impact, as if he was about to eat the ball instead of hit it. His swing, far from being known as fluid and rhythmic, was athletic and fast. He hit the ball hard, every time. He might have been better off clubbing down on the opening hole as he hooked his first tee shot into a terrible lie. An opening 81 put J.J. six shots off the pace. But he rallied that Friday afternoon, firing 72 to climb into a tie for fourth, four shots back. In the third round, fighting a torrential downpour, McDermott shot 75 and moved into a tie for second, three back of Fred McLeod. But that afternoon, when the worst of the weather blew in, McDermott held on, finishing with a 307 total and in another three-way tie. This time it was with Mike Brady and a local named Georgie Simpson.

McDermott in 1911

He almost blew the playoff. Changing the brand of golf ball he’d used all year that Monday, McDermott hit two shots out of bounds but recovered to beat Brady by two and Simpson by five over 18 holes.

Three weeks later, in a handwritten letter on Park Avenue Hotel stationary, McDermott wrote to the Rawlings Company:

Johnny McDermott Letter

McDermott was 19 years old when he won the U.S. Open, making him the youngest winner in history, a record that still stands. He also was the first American to win the U.S. Open, in its 17th playing. When he successfully defended his title in 1912 at the Country Club of Buffalo in New York, finishing 2-under par for the week to beat Tom McNamara by two strokes, he became only the second man (Willie Anderson was the first) to win back-to-back U.S. Opens. Since then only Bobby Jones, Ralph Guldahl, Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange have successfully defended the U.S. Open title.

After J.J.’s two victories, U.S.-born players won the next five Opens, and since 1911 Americans have won the championship 83 times.

Little American Boy

McDermott’s behavior, which was not formally diagnosed as schizophrenia until the 1920s, was dismissed by his peers and the press of the day as petulance. America’s national champion was rude, an Ugly American before that phrase ever came into existence. The establishment figures in the game – those who founded the USGA and built American golf from scratch – could abide a lot of things but bad manners were not among them. It was galling enough that America’s first national champion was a pro, low stock compared to the amateur players of that age, but McDermott was a social misfit, a man of extremes in the company of even-keeled gentlemen. Journalists began to refer to McDermott as “The Little American Boy,” even when he won other events, as he did at the 1913 Philadelphia Open. Not long after that victory he traveled to Great Britain for the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, where he finished fifth, the best finish to that point by an American.

In August 1913, just after returning home from Great Britain, McDermott played in the Shawnee Open at the Shawnee Resort, a Tillinghast design. The event was billed as a warm-up for the U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the biggest American national championship to date. Ted Ray and Harry Vardon had come over to reclaim the title for Great Britain and show the upstart Americans that golf was still a British game. The two also were receiving $150 per appearance to play in matches throughout the States – a scandalous sum if you’d read the papers at the time, even though their going rate in the UK was $500.

A total of 62 players showed up at Shawnee, the strongest field of the summer before the Open. McDermott and Vardon played together, going out at 11:48 on Friday. McDermott beat him by two. They went out together again in the afternoon and McDermott beat him by four. On the second day McDermott poured it on, winning the event by eight shots.

Moments later, in the clubhouse, after the awards were announced, calls went out for a speech from the winner. Tillinghast was not only there, he was the tournament director who was handing the Shawnee Open trophy to this “bumptious youth, who needed a good trimming to show him his place,” as Tillie had once called McDermott. Later, the architect would write of what happened next: “There were calls for a speech, very ill-advisedly, for this was about the last thing the lad was fitted for … Without much ado the young pro referred to ‘What the Little American Boy Could Do’ to foreign invaders and promised that none need fear that the Open title would go across the seas, as he predicted he would give them the same medicine at Brookline.

“Certainly it was uncalled for, this flaunting of extreme optimism in the very face of the invaders, and although all those who heard him could not approve of it, they were mindful of the fact that the comparatively uneducated lad was not a speechmaker, but rather a remarkably fine golfer who possessed in himself a confidence which was developed to an extraordinary degree.”

McDermott realized what he’d done almost immediately and apologized to Vardon and Ray on the spot. Tillinghast also tried to run interference. He called all the attending reporters together and asked that they bury McDermott’s remarks. In print, what the lad had said would certainly come off worse than in the room. And his words were bad enough there. According to Tillinghast’s written accounts, none of the reporters wanted to ruin McDermott’s career so all agreed to sit on the story … except for one. Two days later, an exclusive ran in a long-since defunct New York tabloid. As Tillinghast wrote, “the fat was in the fire.”

USGA officials were furious and threatened to rescind McDermott’s invitation to the U.S. Open despite him being the two-time defending champion. They also sent him a harsh letter that called his actions “unpardonable.”

A short time later, McDermott put out a statement attempting to clarify his original remarks. It read: “I wish Ray and Vardon great success, but the people of this country needn’t worry or fear as to the cup going to the other side. The professional golfers are able enough to take care of the trophy and protect it as conditions are all in their favor, just as much as they were the visitors’ favor on their home courses across the pond.”

That just made matters worse. Reporters who knew nothing about golf vilified him. Officials who knew the game shunned him. And for more than a century, authors, historians and Hollywood producers have turned McDermott into a caricature of a villain. Mark Frost’s book, The Greatest Game Ever Played, gets most of the details right but glosses over McDermott’s underlying mental state. But even that is better than the movie, which had McDermott’s remarks taking place, not at the Shawnee event amid the emotion of a victory, but in Brookline the night before the first round of the U.S. Open without so much as a fleeting reference to McDermott’s at-the-time-undiagnosed condition.

New players or casual fans of the game would likely have no idea that (Francis) Quimet was not the first American to win the U.S. Open, nor was he the youngest. He was just the guy who got Johnny McDermott, the Little American Boy, out of the headlines and all but erased from history.

McDermott, in the eyes of the golf world, was done. Americans were embarrassed. The British were insulted. What the sport really needed was another American to take up the torch, a proper man of good manners and taste. That person turned out to be another young former caddie: Francis Ouimet, the kid who upset the British giants, winning at Brookline in such dramatic fashion that his victory would be credited with changing American golf forever. Ouimet eventually would get his own postage stamp while McDermott would vanish from everywhere but the record books.

Many new players or casual fans of the game would likely have no idea that Ouimet was not the first American to win the U.S. Open, nor was he the youngest. He was just the guy who got Johnny McDermott, the Little American Boy, out of the headlines and all but erased from history.

McDermott finished alone in eighth in Brookline, an extraordinary feat given the barrage he withstood.

Breakdown

“I tried sitting in my apartment and reading,” a patient of Dr. Torrey’s wrote. “The words looked perfectly familiar, like old friends whose faces I remembered perfectly well but whose names I couldn’t recall. I read one paragraph 10 times, could make no sense of it whatever and shut the book. I tried listening to the radio but the sounds went through my head like a buzz saw. I walked carefully through traffic to a movie theater and sat through a movie which seemed to consist of a lot of people wandering around slowly and talking a great deal about something or other. I decided, finally, to spend my days sitting in the park watching the birds on the lake.”

McDermott gave it another shot in 1914. He traveled to Great Britain, hoping for redemption at the British Open. Instead, between missing a boat and his train being delayed, his missed his qualifying tee time at Prestwick. R&A officials offered to bend the rules given the circumstances but McDermott refused – an act of sportsmanship that should have won him some redemption points but didn’t.

Then on his way back across the English Channel, his ferry was struck by another ship. Neither boat went down but McDermott was in a lifeboat for a while, wondering if the cold, black waters of this faraway land would be his final resting place. Finally, as if all of that weren’t enough, the investments he’d made in the stock market took a tumble. He was broke, despite all the winnings and endorsements; all the custom drivers he’d crafted; all the matches he’d won; all the history he’d made. John J. McDermott spent his final days of independence living part-time in a boarding house and part-time with his parents, doing his best to keep the news of his plight from his younger sisters.

“I have never had a single moment in which I did not hear voices,” another anonymous suffer of schizophrenia wrote for Dr. Torrey’s book. “They accompany me to every place and at all times; they continue to sound even when I am in conversation with other people, they persist undeterred even when I concentrate on other things, for instance read a book or newspaper, play the piano, etc.; only when I am talking aloud to other people or to myself are they of course drowned by the stronger sound of the spoken word and therefore inaudible to me.”

With crisp fall winds pushing through the Jersey Shore, McDermott needed to make some decisions about the winter. But he couldn’t. Everything had crumbled, including his mind. He talked to himself, not the way people might mumble a list or a phrase to help them remember, but in a loud voice, sometimes shouting non sequiturs to no one. When other people, members at his club or members of his family, spoke to him it often sounded like gibberish. People who claimed to know him, who claimed to be related to him, looked completely foreign. Sometimes he would look at his hands and wonder what they were. Then, one morning in the middle of October, he had an “episode,” a break that clarified every quirk of the past 23 years. Everyone could see it now. J.J. McDermott was, in the words of the sanitorium where he would spend the rest of his life, a “lunatic.”

The American Golfer published the news first, although almost every insider in golf knew it beforehand.

“The report that ex-Open Champion John J. McDermott was in a sanitorium suffering from a nervous breakdown caused many friends and sympathizers to shake their heads sadly, hoping all the while that it might not be true. But unfortunately the persistent rumor was based on fact. Undoubtedly McDermott is the greatest golfer ever bred in America.”

His parents took him back to Philadelphia. He stayed with them for a while when he wasn’t receiving treatment. That arrangement lasted a year. During that time, he played in the Met Open in July 1915, shooting 301 and failing to earn any money. Like most parents, the McDermotts must have hoped for the best while realizing the worst. Once it became apparent that their son’s condition would not improve, they had no choice. On June 23, 1916, Margaret McDermott committed her first-born child and only son to the State Lunatic Hospital at Norristown, Pa. It would be his address for the rest of his life.

Everyone could see it now. J.J. McDermott was, in the words of the sanitorium where he would spend the rest of his life, a “lunatic.”

The facilities were state of the art and beautiful. A large admissions building had just been completed so that when the McDermotts pulled up, it looked as though J.J. was enrolling in a prestigious university. The campus encompassed 265 acres, which included gardens, living quarters, treatment facilities, a full-scale hospital and a newly built women’s convalescence center, none of the grim horrors of mental facilities in other parts of the country. The realities of the treatment were less upbeat. Water was still used in a lot of borderline medieval ways, including wrapping patients in sheets like straightjackets and wetting them so that the sheets would contract and bind them tightly. McDermott’s records will never be released as there are no surviving family members, so everything is an assumption. But before 1950, electroconvulsive therapy was the most common treatment for schizophrenia. By the time chlorpromazine, the first antipsychotic drug, hit the market, J.J. was 60 years old.

There also was no social safety net in 1916. Patients or their families were responsible for the care. One of the first acts of the first meeting of the PGA of America was to “pass the hat” for John J. McDermott. They raised $50. Realizing that a one-time gift would not get the job done, the organization created the PGA Benevolence Fund, a charity that has helped countless professionals and their families. And it all started because of McDermott, another accomplishment for which he receives no formal credit.

He walked a lot during his time there. And because the hospital had plenty of property, he even built a six-hole golf course. Walter Hagen helped raise money for the construction and maintenance. Once the project was complete, Hagen and McDermott played the inaugural round. Afterward, sitting outside looking over a couple of the holes that ran away down a hillside, McDermott said to Hagen, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a view as beautiful as this one.” Then he paused. “Tell the boys I’m going to be just fine.”

Tragic Oversight

Because he wasn’t criminally insane and posed no serious threat to himself or others, McDermott could go out with supervision. His sisters, Alice and Gertrude, came often. They would go to Mass together. And Johnny would play golf. He made a couple of appearances in the summer of 1925, at age 33, in Philadelphia-area events. He never seriously contended and some of the players had no idea who he was. The same was true out at Atlantic City Country Club, where he would show up.

After World War II, when Leo Fraser bought Atlantic City Country Club, he immediately named one of the rooms the John J. McDermott Room. Fraser went to Alice and Gertrude and told them how special J.J. was to the club and that they should bring him out often for golf and lunch. They did just that.

In appreciation for what Fraser had done, the McDermott sisters gave him and Atlantic City Country Club the 1911 U.S. Open gold medal. Leo kept it in his desk until he passed away in 1986. Then Doug and Jim Fraser put it on display at the club until they had it appraised. The appraisal came back at $40,000. The Frasers donated the medal to the USGA. It currently resides in the USGA Museum at Golf House.

Atlantic City Country Club wasn’t McDermott’s only golf stop. The staff at Overlook Golf Club in Philadelphia saw him regularly and he would make it out to Valley Forge Golf Course on occasion. Then in 1971, something special happened. J.J. got a ride out to Merion Golf Club during the playing the U.S. Open, which was won by Lee Trevino. But as he shuffled through the clubhouse, one of the security guards assumed he was riffraff wandering onto the grounds. The guards started to escort him out while McDermott, who stuttered by that point, couldn’t communicate his thoughts. Thankfully a USGA official recognized him.

Sixty years after winning the first of his two U.S. Open titles, J.J. McDermott was escorted to a place of honor behind the 18th green where he was given a chair. The greatest players in the game shook his hand as they finished their rounds. Forty-three days later, on Aug. 1, 1971, McDermott played nine holes at Valley Forge, was driven back to the Norristown facility and passed away in his sleep. He was 11 days shy of his 80th birthday having spent 55 years in an institution.

“One of the great and tragic oversights in our game is the absence of John McDermott from the World Golf Hall of Fame,” Doug Fraser said. “Here we are in 2018 and he’s still the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Open and he will always be the first American to win it. But people don’t know. People don’t know about him, don’t know what he went through. He’s like so many mentally ill people. It’s just easier to forget about them. It’s just easier to look away.”

Photos courtesy of the USGA Archive

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